In these finicky consumer times, for a manufacturer to have diehard loyalists is a wondrous thing in and of itself, but Polk Audio’s fans are something special. Last week, starting on Thursday night, Polkfest got underway at the Baltimore, Maryland, home of Matthew Polk, chairman of the speaker company. Invited were approximately 20 Polkfest members, all enthusiastic audiophiles mostly from the north and southeast, who helped to organized the event.
Perhaps the right word to describe Polkfest is “reverential.” Started in 2001 by the shy and very modest Russ Gates, the gathering is an outgrowth of the bond several of the organizers and attendees forged via Polk Audio’s Web forum — a lively cyber meeting place that has at least 2,000 Polk Audio fans and experts that visit daily, and several thousand more who wander in for audio help and suggestions.
That first gathering, which took place at Gates’ McKinney, Texas, home, featured about a dozen attendees and one special gate-crasher, Stu Lumsden, Polk Audio’s VP of engineering, who had caught wind of the event and wanted to see what about Polk would bring these guys together. It was the beginning of a tradition. Polkfest 2008 was attended by more than 70 two-channel audio fans, all of whom made the pilgrimage to Polk Audio’s Maryland headquarters on their own dime.
Thursday night’s opening ceremonies of sorts began at Matt Polk’s newly completed home, which is a marvel of original architectural ideas that show off the speaker innovator’s love of both audio and art, namely antique textiles that he and his wife, Amy (the house’s architect), enthusiastically collect. Polk’s appreciation of his guests included animated conversations about his unassuming, but powerful home theater and the two-channel listening room that houses a pair of his favorite Polk Audio speakers, the LSi9s.
At dinner that evening, Polkfest organizers, including Gates, Russ Abernathy, and Mark Nestor, thanked Polk for his generosity with the gift of a custom-made pen knife, which, as one guest pointed out, Polk immediately began to reverse engineer.
Friday’s festivities, hosted at Polk Audio headquarters, kicked off with a brief retrospective of the company and underscored its grassroots beginnings in an old, rundown Victorian house in Baltimore where Polk and Sandy Gross, one of Polk’s founders, got their start in 1972. However, while the day’s emphasis was on the history and engineering behind Polk Audio, with tours of the facilities and demos rich with speaker placement and configuration suggestions, perhaps the most significant portion of the gathering came at the end, when Matt Polk, Jim Herd, president of the company, and Al Ballard, VP of marketing, took questions and suggestions from attendees.
The exchange — which covered everything from ideas on how to better market the company’s new SurroundBar 360 in the likes of Tweeter and Circuit City, to debates about the audio difference between speakers in the hugely popular LSi Series — showed a company fully engaged with its consumer base, and a passionate consumer base encouraged and full supported by the maker of one of its beloved products. For a company that is more consumer-driven, Polk Audio has managed to build a custom-like following.
In the age of iPods and cheap earbuds, that there continues to be enthusiasm for two-channel audio (and might I add, vinyl) is heartening. I agree with Matt Polk, who noted during his one-on-10 talk with my group of Polkfesters, that the very technology some audio enthusiasts rail against, might re-open the door for an older, but richer form of audio expression (two channels) and a better quality listening experience overall.